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Clinton takes Democrats’ fire . . . and Bush’s praise

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Times Staff Writer

It was a day of attacks and parries over the credentials of the Democratic candidates for president, exchanges that saw Hillary Rodham Clinton belittle Barack Obama, John Edwards tweak Clinton and -- in the oddest twist -- President Bush praise the New York senator’s experience. At least on Tuesday, the Democratic race for president looked more like a shoving match than a civil airing of policy differences.

The volleys came as Clinton also began fighting back against Republican White House contenders who have tried to strengthen their standing among conservatives by airing biting TV ads against her. Facing a dip in her Iowa and New Hampshire poll ratings, Clinton responded with an ad saying the “old Republican attack machine” was back and attacking her because of her strength and experience.

Combined, Clinton’s assault against Obama and her Republican critics underscored the fragility of her status as the national front-runner for the Democratic nomination.

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In Iowa, which kicks off the presidential races with its Jan. 3 caucuses, Obama and Clinton are virtually tied in the polls, and Edwards, the former North Carolina senator, is close behind. Clinton’s lead in New Hampshire has also narrowed in recent days.

Most unusual on Tuesday was the intervention of Bush and his wife in the Democratic contest. Calling Clinton a “very formidable candidate,” the president told ABC News: “There is no question that Sen. Clinton understands pressure better than any of the candidates, you know, in the race.”

Laura Bush underscored a key rationale for Clinton’s White House run, saying her predecessor’s experience as first lady would be “very helpful” in the Oval Office. “You certainly know what it’s like,” she said. “You know the pressure there is. You know the difficulties.”

Amid the tightening race, Clinton on Tuesday took a more aggressive posture toward Obama. She ridiculed the Illinois senator for having said the day before that his strongest experience in foreign relations was four years of living in Indonesia from ages 6 to 10. Clinton said that as a first lady and senator, she had “met with countless world leaders” and knew them personally.

“Now voters will judge whether living in a foreign country at the age of 10 prepares one to face the big, complex international challenges the next president will face,” Clinton told a crowd in Shenandoah, Iowa, via a telephone hookup from Omaha.

“I think we need a president with more experience than that -- someone the rest of the world knows, looks up to and has confidence in,” Clinton said. “I don’t think this is the time for on-the-job training on our economy or on foreign policy.”

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Campaigning in the snowy lakes region of central New Hampshire, Obama responded by criticizing Clinton’s Senate vote to authorize the Iraq war.

“I was wondering which world leader told her that we needed to invade Iraq, because that is the conventional thinking that we’re going to have to break,” Obama told a crowd here in a high school gymnasium.

“A long resume doesn’t guarantee good judgment,” he added. “And it says nothing about your character. And this next election is going to be about character. And it’s going to be about judgment.”

To sharpen the point, Obama’s campaign seized upon Bush’s remarks. Obama spokesman Bill Burton said, “I can’t tell if he’s endorsing her, hoping she’s the nominee, or thanking her for her votes on Iraq and Iran.”

Obama has criticized Clinton’s vote for a Senate measure urging the Bush administration to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization, saying it could put the U.S. on a path to war with Iran.

The jabs on Tuesday captured a key dynamic of the Democratic race, with Clinton casting herself as the most experienced candidate, while Obama and Edwards present themselves as the best agents of change.

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The Edwards campaign mocked Clinton on Tuesday for her remarks on Obama’s life in Indonesia.

“Now we know what Sen. Clinton meant when she talked about ‘throwing mud’ in the last debate,” said Edwards communications director Chris Kofinis. “Like so many other things, when it comes to mud, Hillary Clinton says one thing and throws another.”

Others in the Democratic race also jumped into the fray. CNN reported that Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, smiled at Obama’s comments on the value of living abroad.

“I think he’s right,” Biden said. “This is his strongest [foreign policy] credential.”

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, meanwhile, scoffed at Clinton’s ad against the “Republican attack machine.”

“It’s an interesting admission from Sen. Clinton -- that if she’s elected we’re headed for four more years of the partisan warfare, Washington dysfunction, bitter divisiveness and gridlock that have marked the last 15 years, at a time when all Americans are desperate for real solutions to real problems,” said Hari Sevugan, Dodd’s communications director.

Clinton’s ad features snippets of ads run against her by Republican White House hopefuls, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

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Another Republican candidate, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, took a swipe at Clinton in Chicago on Tuesday.

“Sen. Clinton has had so many different positions on Iraq, I would not want to be the one to state her most current position, because I’d probably get it wrong,” he said, adding that Obama, by contrast, had stood “clearly against the war.”

Giuliani also praised Obama for his candor in telling high school students in Manchester, N.H., on Tuesday morning that he had experimented with drugs at their age.

“I respect his honesty in doing that,” said Giuliani, whose stormy personal life has posed challenges for him in the Republican race. “I think that one of the things that we need from people running for office is not this pretense of perfection.”

michael.finnegan@latimes.com

Times staff writer Peter Nicholas contributed to this report.

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